Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It can be slippery at the top

There's plenty of hand-wringing going on among Bruins, Rangers and Thrashers fans today, not to mention a fair share of sweaty palms among Flyers and Canadiens backers too.

That's because of those five teams, only three will still be playing hockey once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin two weeks hence. As of this morning, any of them can finish as high as sixth in the conference. We could go on and on here hashing and rehashing possible playoff scenarios, but the one slot I'm focusing on is eighth place -- the final playoff berth in the East. Much energy, emotion and blood will be expended for the privilege of landing in that spot and the right to face Alex Ovechkin (above) and the Capitals, regarded by many to be the best team in the NHL.

A fait accompli, you say? One and done? As easy as an empty-netter? Just delaying the inevitable tee time by a few more days? Granted, finishing with the best record in the conference over an 82-game NHL season is a pretty accurate barometer of how talented a team is, and a team that good should be rewarded in the playoffs by getting home ice against a team that, well, isn't as good.

But the top seed advancing into the second round of Lord Stanley's playoffs isn't as much of a cakewalk as you might think. Since the NHL adopted its current 16-team playoff format in 1994, there have been eight instances in 32 first-round series when the eighth-seeded team forced the the No. 1 seeded squad to melt their home ice much earlier than expected.

That's a 25-percent chance for a first-round upset, which might not be enough to make Alex and the Caps shake in their skates, but certainly is enough to give them pause. Here's a rundown of such occurrences:

1994 - Sharks (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
1995 - Rangers (8) def. Nordiques (1), 4-2.
1998 - Senators (8) def. Devils (1), 4-2.
1999 - Penguins (8) def. Devils (1), 4-3.
2000 - Sharks (8) def. Blues (1), 4-3.
2002 - Canadiens (8) def. Bruins (1), 4-2.
2006 - Oilers (8) def. Red Wings (1), 4-2.
2009 - Ducks (8) def. Sharks (1), 4-2.

You'll notice a few things here; in every case, each series lasted at least six games -- at least the higher-seeded team never went down without a fight. Also, the Devils and Red Wings were each victimized in this scenario twice, with the Devils unfortunate enough to suffer a stunning elimination in two successive seasons. The Sharks actually pulled off the coup twice, but are the only team to have the tables turned on them -- by the Ducks a year ago.

You may be wondering how well eighth-seeded teams fared after securing their opening-round shockers. Ultimately, not that well. The 2006 Oilers came within one game of becoming the only eighth-seed to win the Stanley Cup, but they fell in the Finals to the Hurricanes in seven games.

All of which means Ovie and the Caps better keep their heads up, else they could find themselves trading in their sticks for five-irons.

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